Few can reasonably debate (although Randy Moss has tried) the proposition that Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver in NFL history. After Rice, most would say Terrell Owens and Moss are No. 2 and No. 3, or No. 3 and No. 2.
Regardless, there’s no doubt that Owens’ achievements merit a spot in Canton. So why didn’t he get one on his first try? More specifically, why did Marvin Harrison (with 29 fewer touchdowns, 1,354 fewer receiving yards, and only 24 more catches) get in on a night when Owens didn’t even make the cut from 15 to 10?
The officially unofficial explanation is that Owens’ reputation as a bad teammate kept him from making it from the 15 finalists to the final 10.
“The Hall of Fame ought to be for people who made their teams better,” proclaims Hall of Fame G.M. Bill Polian, “not [those] who disrupted their teams and made them worse.”
At times, Owens was indeed disruptive, for various reasons. But did Owens really make his teams worse? He returned from a broken ankle to be arguably the best player on the field in Super Bowl XXXIX, and the Eagles lost that game to the Patriots not because of anything T.O. did but despite an effort that everyone who was paying attention recognized as heroic and memorable.
Only after the Eagles refused to acknowledge those contributions with a contract providing him greater compensation and protections did he decide to provoke a trade or release in 2005. Was it an ill-advised, selfish move? Yes, but it was compelled by a system that allows teams to rip up contracts when a player underperforms but prevents players from doing the same when they overdeliver.
A decade later, media and fans seem to better understand that, when players choose to act like owners, players shouldn’t automatically be vilified the way Owens was. That said, Owens didn’t help himself by following his time in Philly with a stint in Dallas that featured a fractured locker room arising from allegations that Tony Romo and Jason Witten were conspiring to get Witten the ball more.
To the extent that the words of Polian, who while in the NFL did his own share of disrupting pretty much wherever he happened to be, had any weight in the Hall of Fame voting room on Saturday, does it mean Owens never gets in? Or does it means that he merely needs to spend a year or two in Michael Irvin/Cris Carter-style purgatory before getting a gold jacket?
Bet the farm on the latter. Indeed, Harrison’s ascension came after a delay that undoubtedly was influenced at least in part by the unresolved off-field events that happened in Philadelphia. Those factors aren’t supposed to matter when it comes to Canton, but until the voters are replaced by robots, those issues will creep into the assessment.
Polian’s opinion, clearly motivated by a desire to help Harrison get in over Owens, helped justify preventing Owens from jumping Harrison in the line to football immortality. Eventually, Owens will get in under the same de facto pecking order that, in a strange sort of way, ensures a more orderly progression.
It could happen in an eventual showdown with Moss, who can be accused of something Owens never did — not giving full effort on the field. Here’s hoping that, if Owens gets in and Moss doesn’t (which if they’re up at the same time would likely happen), Owens won’t crow that this means he was better than Moss. Under that argument, Harrison is better than Owens.
Harrison isn’t. Owens should have gotten in before him. But that’s the way the system works, and until someone can devise a better way to make the sausage, better ingredients often will be left on the shelf for the next year’s meal.